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YSU Equipment Room Keeps Penguins Running

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s an hour before football practice starts and already players are stopping by the front counter of the equipment room in the depths of Stambaugh Stadium.

Some are there to pick up their recently cleaned helmets, some to grab gloves or cleats they’ll use in practice. Others just make chitchat with the equipment staff.

It’s that staff who hold the responsibility of making sure that all Youngstown State University student athletes are properly outfitted, whether for practice or games. Everything an athlete could need is here, from bolts for facemasks to athletic tape to batting helmets to the polo shirts they wear for team pictures.

“There’s practice gear, T-shirts, shorts, hoodies, sweatpants, travel suits, game day shirts, shoes, balls, bats, gloves,” says the assistant equipment manager, Tim Gallo. “Even for things like basketball, some people don’t know that a lot of them wear padded shorts.”

As with any warehouse, the key to keeping it all running smoothly is organization. When the stadium was built in the early 1980s, workmen installed huge wooden cabinets that reached from floor to ceiling to house the department’s stock. About three years ago, equipment manager Alvy Armstrong says, he began ordering custom-made cases from LM Cases in Youngstown to replace the cabinets.

The new containers are about six feet tall and subdivided into cubbyholes for each player. The cases, equipped with wheels, allow the equipment room staff to easily move them to the locker rooms so players can grab their equipment before a game.

In another area of the equipment room, shelves are filled with small crates with all the football players’ equipment – one crate per player.

“If they’re on the white team [during practice], we throw a red jersey in there. If it’s a returning player, we keep their game pants from last year and, later on [in the season], their cold-weather stuff in there,” Armstrong says. “It’s a way for us to stage it and get it ready to be passed out. We can keep it here, pull it out and issue it. We’re not searching for something.”

An inventory management system helps the staff, which includes eight students, to track what comes in and goes out. As athletes prepare for the season, shipments of supplies are arriving. Staff checks their contents into the system before disbursal.

“This time of year, things are coming in so fast that they pretty much go right back out,” Armstrong says. “Our inventory tracking system keeps track of kids’ sizes and preferences. When we send the helmets out after spring practice to get refinished and recertified, we have it in our system exactly what they wear down to which pad in which location.”

A new feature in the inventory system cuts down on the legwork the equipment staff has to do with new players. When a fresh team roster comes in, Armstrong and his team get a player’s phone number and can text him a link to fill out a form where he provides information such as his shoe and shirt sizes and some of his preferences for accessories.

“We can know all of that before they even get on campus,” he says.

And those preferences are what keep the equipment room abuzz with activity.

Just behind the front desk of the equipment room sit shelves filled with athletic tape of various colors – mostly black and white, however – and widths. Football gloves are available in a few patterns, including one that has the block Y logo printed across the palm and red and black stripes along the back of the hand. In the storage room, a wall is filled with cubbyholes stocked with facemasks of all shapes and sizes, shoulder pads and spare shoes that players like but are no longer available to order.

“These kids are into the swag,” Gallo says. “They believe that if you look good, you play good. That’s great. My goal is to make the athlete be as comfy as possible so they can perform on the field – and half of that is mental.”

Choosing the equipment to order can be just as daunting as keeping all of it organized. Armstrong usually begins figuring out what to order near the end of a sport’s season – he ordered shoes for the 2017 football season in November, for example – and the items typically arrive a few months later.

“You have to guess. It’s a little bit of retail forecasting,” he says. “You look at what they make available and think about what they kids will like.”

For football, he continues, he knows that few players wear high-top Under Armour Highlight cleats. So he orders only a few. For skill position players, he knows that most gravitate toward Under Armour’s Spotlight line, while linemen have their own styles they wear. In total, the equipment room stocks about 400 pairs of shoes.

“Out of those 400, we’ll go through practice, games, spring practice and the freshmen arriving in June,” he says. “This will last me through June until I get my next order in during mid-July.”

Other items, such as the jackets athletes wear on their way to and from games, are decided by the coaches, Gallo adds.

“It varies from year to year, from coaching staff to coaching staff. You just have to work closely with the coaches and communicate what they want,” he says. “Some may want players to wear a full-zip jacket for travel and others are OK with a hoodie.”

After each practice and game – for every sport – the equipment staff is responsible for making sure clothing and equipment is cleaned. The laundry room in Stambaugh Stadium features four washers – three 35-pound machines and a 75-pound machine – and three dryers, one that holds 150 pounds of clothes and two that hold 75 pounds.

“When football comes in after practice, we go through all of these once and then cycle through two smaller units. If we get off the field at 12:30 [p.m.], the laundry is going by 1,” Armstrong says.

With multiple sports practicing at once – currently volleyball and soccer – the machines run almost constantly. For equipment such as football helmets and catcher’s pads, cleaning happens in an ozone machine that takes about 2½ hours to cycle through entirely.

On game day, Armstrong, Gallo and their staff are among the first to begin preparations. They arrive six hours before kickoff to set out clothes for players and coaches as well as to make sure the headset system is up and running.

Last year Bo Pelini and his staff began using a new headset system manufactured by CoachComm. They made the switch because the previous system ran at 2.4 gigahertz, the same frequency as most Wi-Fi signals, which muddied communication between coaches.

“This system checks for free frequencies 60 times a second, so it’s constantly switching to find free bandwidth,” Armstrong explains, noting that YSU was the first college football team in the country to use the system, beating Oregon State University by one minute. YSU kicked off at 12:34 Central Time Nov. 5, Oregon State at 12:35 Pacific Time.

After all of that is set up and ready to go, attention turns to handing out personal equipment such as gloves, towels and athletic tape.

The routine is mostly the same for road games, although that process includes traveling and packing players’ bags.

“We take everything that’s in the equipment room in a reduced fashion. We can take care of any problem,” Armstrong says. “We go through the bags before they get put on the truck to make sure players have helmets, shoulder pads and the obvious things. … Even if they do forget, we have extras with us, along with any nut or bolt that might break or extra jerseys.”

All the spare equipment is loaded into a trailer that doubles as the ticket booth for the eastern stands during home games, he adds.

As the team counts down the days until the season opener at Pitt, one notable piece remains missing from the Penguins’ uniforms: the block Y and white stripe on the helmets. Those, Armstrong says, are the last piece of equipment issued the players.

“They have to dress for a game to get those,” he says. “If you come out to practice the week after Pitt, you’ll see a few guys that don’t have it.”

With a constant flow of players in and out of the equipment room – as well as those who just walk by the front desk a few times a day – the staff develops close relationships with every Penguin student-athlete in every sport.

“We build relationships over the four or five years that they’re here. It’s great to see them come in kids and leave as young adults,” Gallo says. “This is a very fun place to be. People sometimes forget how important we are in the machine. We make memories every day with the students we work with.”

Pictured: The equipment room stocks everything an athlete could need, says Alvy Armstrong.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.